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A Wild Weekend in...IOWA?
What could Elton John, Billy Joel ...a cemetery...an elderly nudist... John Wayne...the book and movie "The Bridges of Madison County", and a tanning salon possibly have in common?
Well, they were elements of an unplanned, adventure-packed weekend in Iowa in August 1994.
That was the year Elton John and Billy Joel kicked off their Face To Face Stadium Tours. Although I was a huge fan of both, I'd also enjoyed the concerts of other Big Names in air-conditioned comfort only a few rows from the stage of the Aladdin Theatre in Las Vegas.
The idea of spending an evening sweltering in the nose-bleed section of a college football stadium - even to see the Piano Men in person - was right up there with root canals as an "enjoyable experience". Not.
But another Elton-Billy fan talked me into going anyway. Then we had to choose the scene of my torture. Distance-wise, the choices were St. Louis on Aug 9th, or the University of Iowa at Ames on Aug. 13th.
St. Louis was a non-starter. The 9th was a Tuesday and I wasn't about to waste 3 days of vacation time on a concert I really didn't want to attend in the first place. Plus I'd lived in St. Louis for two years. Only a masochist (or an Angelino) would voluntarily drive 300 miles to join the bumper-to-bumper traffic that was the norm within 20 miles of Busch Stadium. Which left Ames, 30 miles north of Des Moines on I-35. Still a 300-mile drive, but Des Moines traffic would be a piece of cake compared to St. Louis.
As usual for road trips, I rented a car. It'd be Enterprise's problem if it broke down. I didn't include my friend as a driver on the rental contract for the simple reason he considered even quiet side streets practice laps for the Indianapolis 500. No sane person would voluntarily ride with him behind the wheel. Instead, he'd be our navigator. Never mind there'd be little or no "navigating"; we'd be on I-35 almost the entire time.
So off we went early on the morning of Friday, Aug 12th. The plan was simple:
- Arrive in Ames Friday afternoon ahead of the 50,000+ other Billy-Elton fans expected to descend on the town on Saturday.
- Check into a hotel.
- Hang out in Ames Friday night and all day Saturday.
- Attend the concert Saturday evening.
- Head home Sunday.
Having grown up in a college town about the same size as Ames, I had a pretty good idea what "hanging out" in late summer meant: B-O-R-I-N-G. If no interesting movies were playing, I'd hole up with a good book while my friend explored the town - on foot, of course.
We took a slight detour to St. Joseph, Missouri, to have breakfast at a truck stop at the junction of I-29 and Hiway 36 that I knew from a trip to Omaha. Then we headed east on 36, and after 30 miles or so we'd pick up I-35 again.
It was an unusually nice summer day. A few miles east of St. Joe, I wondered out loud where we might be in relation to Corning, Iowa. Thrilled at the chance to demonstrate his skills, the Navigator flipped through the road atlas in his lap and replied, "Almost directly south".
"What road do we need to be on to get there?", I asked.
"The one a couple of miles back, but why Corning?".
Well, late in life my great-great-grandparents, Frederick and Susan Cupp, had moved there from southwest Pennsylvania to be near several of their children eventually buried in Corning. Fred and Susan, however, were laid to rest a few miles away at Mt. Etna. For years I'd wanted to visit Corning and Mt Etna, and Opportunity had just presented itself in the form of 30 hours to kill before we absolutely had to be at Cyclone Stadium in Ames.
So we did a U-turn at the next crossover, back-tracked a couple of miles and turned north toward a wide place in the road called Clarksdale, totally unaware at that point that we had just "stepped through the looking glass" into possibly the wildest weekend of our lives.
We were now on a two-lane highway. The Scenic Route. After Clarksdale came other quaint little burgs.
Shortly after one named Stanberry, we began seeing a huge structure on the horizon, which due to its size we were certain must be a prison but turned out to be the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, more commonly known as Conception Abbey and Seminary College.
Founded by Swiss Benedictines in 1891, it offers tours of its magnificent cathedral and retreat set in rolling wheat fields. On subsequent trips to southwest Iowa we took a different route, and I've kicked myself ever since for not stopping that day!
But Corning was the goal so we drove on.
After a pit stop in the "big" city of Maryville, we headed up Highway 148. A few miles past Hopkins, a sign saying "Welcome to Iowa" came into view.
"Is this heaven? No, it's IOWA!" (from the movie, Field of Dreams).
Iowa has always seemed "cleaner" than neighboring states. The sky seems bluer, clouds seem whiter, and even in August, anything green simply sparkles as if it had just had a bath.
Through Bedford, then past Gravity (which apparently didn't rate having the highway routed through it), then nothing for the next 22 miles to Corning except many tidy farms.
And corn. Tall corn planted so close to the road that it was like driving in a tunnel.
The first hint this was not a "normal" trip was in Corning.
Keep in mind this was before the Internet and MapQuest...that I'd never been in Corning until that day...that information sent by other researchers only stated the Cupps were buried there...and that none of that information had included the name of the cemetery or directions to it.
[NOTE: I apparently did relent a bit and let my friend drive, but only the one time in Corning, and then he went back to being "just" the Navigator.]
When my friend expressed doubts, I ignored them and said matter-of-factly, "Take a right at the next corner". So he did, but when we reached the edge of town with no cemetery in sight, he was certain we'd have to go back to ask directions. But I simply pointed left and said, "There it is".
And there it was....
I can't explain how I "knew" which cemetery and the most direct route to it. I just did.
Then, without ever seeing a plot map, I went straight to the Cupp graves at the opposite end of the cemetery.
That was only the beginning....
Back in Beautiful Downtown Corning, we stopped at the former home of Fred and Susan's youngest son Jonas, across the street from the Fire Department. After arriving in Iowa in the 1860s, Jonas worked as a freight hauler, driving a wagon pulled by six horses. One day the team spooked, he was dragged along a fence after getting tangled in the reins, and one leg had to be amputated. But that didn't deter him from a long career as a carpenter and several terms as Adams County Clerk before dying at the age of 88. His next older brother, the Rev. Aaron Y. Cupp, officiated at 800 Adams County weddings, earning him the nickname "the Marrying Parson".
Our next stop was the Corning Public Library. Instead of the usual polite smile and "I'll see if we have anything" when I mention an ancestor's surname, the lady at the desk turned out to be a roundabout Cupp cousin. She jumped up and started pulling out county histories and such, but when I mentioned I already had all that, she said, "Well then, you need to talk to Merrill Sparks".
Merriill was the acknowledged expert on Adams County history. Not only did he live in Mt. Etna, he was also sexton of the cemetery where Fred and Susan are interred.
Can we spell S-E-R-E-N-D-I-P-I-T-Y???
"Probably out and about", the librarian said after trying his number a couple of times, apparently as clueless as we were at that point that the 70-something historian was a practicing nudist. Lucky for us he didn't answer, or we would've spent the night in Corning and missed the next Unplanned Adventure...
Heading east out of Corning, if we stayed on Highway 34 we'd run into I-35. By now, however, we were completely besotted by the charms of rural Iowa and had no desire to return to the fast pace of the interstate and urban sprawl. A few miles past Afton, we turned north on 169, which would allow us to bypass the suburbs of West Des Moines but still be in Ames in time for dinner.
Of course, the gods had other plans...
And a good thing they did, because we never gave a thought to making hotel reservations. Other than the Elton-Billy concert, what could possibly be going on in mid-August in that part of Iowa?
Well, a little thing called the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines for one, and Parents' Weekend at the University of Iowa (Ames) for incoming freshmen.
A large sign outside of Winterset announced it was John Wayne's birthplace. The neighbor keeping my children for the weekend was a huge John Wayne fan, so we really had no choice but to take another unplanned detour, long enough to snap a few pix and buy a few souvenirs. Alas, the John Wayne Museum had already closed for the day and wouldn't re-open until 10:00 the next morning.
Which, Dear Reader, is how we "happened" to spend the night in Winterset in "the only room left within a hundred miles". Well, not quite the only, but more about that later.
In August of 1994, Winterset Iowa, still had one foot in the Fifties. Waitresses genuinely cared if your food wasn't okay. People strolled around the square with its ornate courthouse, or sat on park benches and watched traffic, such as it was.
Unless it was a Friday night. Then the Big Thing was to watch local teenagers drag John Wayne Drive on the east side of the square. It was quite the show, cars and pickups of various genres going up and down "the boulevard" again and again, the kids honking and yelling.
The heart-wrenching book that started it all.
Where to have dinner was a no-brainer: Ken's Northside Cafe.
Winterset, of course, was the setting for Robert James Waller's phenomenal best-seller, The Bridges of Madison County, which I'd bawled my way through in one sitting, as did the supposedly manly-man colleague who recommended it.
Any Bridges fan knows the Northside is "the" place to eat in Winterset. There are other restaurants, of course, but none as famous or as historic, and it really is on the north side of the square. Filming the movie had not yet begun, so we saw it in its original state, before Hollywood spiffed it up. Trust me, the Northside BTM (before the movie) was ten times more charming than what you saw on the screen. We dined in one of the high-backed booths toward the back. (Note: Yelling "That's our booth!" will not endear you to the rest of the audience in a movie theater...)
Earlier, on finding the Duke's birthplace closed, we'd explored the nearby Winterset City Park, even making the trek out to the medieval Clark Tower, which could only be reached by foot, bicycle or small car, which lucky for us, ours was. To get there, we had to cross the stone bridge where Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) and Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) had their picnic in the movie. That day, however, it was just part of the route through the woods out to the overlook where the tower is located.
The next morning we bid a fond farewell to the "last room" which had already been promised to others for Saturday night, had breakfast at the Northside, and made the pilgrimage to John Wayne's boyhood home.
Then we headed north on 169, looking for "Vacancy" signs.
Yeah, right.... Fat chance.... Dream on....
Radio stations were reporting there were no rooms within 150 miles of Ames and Des Moines, so at that point we didn't bother going into Ames. Instead, we headed west on Highway 30, looking for any place to lay our heads that night. Driving along, I was thinking wistfully of the closet full of camping equipment we didn't bring because we wouldn't need it. Grrrrrrr. Didn't bring pillows or blankets either. Double grrrr... At Grand Junction, 46 miles from Ames, we spotted a motel with a "No Vacancy" sign, but a little voice said 'stop anyway'.
That serendipity thing again.
The owner was a firecracker named Janice who was nice enough to call out-of-the-way places she knew, but even she couldn't find an empty room. But she did have a tanning salon which she offered to leave unlocked. We didn't want her to do that and risk someone less nice than ourselves finding it unlocked. Instead, if we had to come back, we'd sleep in the car and she'd make sure we weren't bothered. In case we did get lucky, we had her card and would call her.
Now that we had a "reservation" of sorts, we went to the Wal-Mart in Boone, only 15 miles from Ames, for a couple of blankets and large throw pillows that could be used at home later.
Well, Decorator Pillows happened to be at the back, next to the storeroom, and as I was perusing the selection, a girl who looked to be about 16 came out. On a whim, I stopped her and very sweetly asked if she might possibly know of any out-of-the-way motels that girls at her school - certainly not her, I was careful to add - might've gone with their boyfriends. "Oh, sure" she said, without batting an eyelash. "There's the [something] motel a couple of blocks from downtown"...and rattled off the directions. I grabbed my friend and we wasted no time finding this no-tell motel, which turned out to be a group of what an elderly cousin would call "tourist cabins" behind an old but well-preserved 3-story home.
The cabins weren't the Holiday Inn by any means, but they were clean with working A/C, and each had two double beds. The owners were a really nice couple who bought it as an investment for retirement, but who obviously knew nothing about marketing. Of the dozen or so cabins, only one was occupied or even reserved. But not for long. One call to Janice took care of that. A parade of out-of-state cars began pulling in 20 minutes later. When we called back to say there were no more cabins, she asked if we'd share ours. A "nice-looking, middle-aged farm couple from Nebraska" was desperate for a place to stay after the concert.
Of course we said "Sure".
And if you've read this far, you've probably guessed another Memorable Event on the Yellow Brick Road was about to unfold...
Did I mention my friend was a cross between a big red-headed teddy bear and a cockerspaniel? As soon as Nebraska Farm Couple's car turned in, he was out the door, jumping up and down on the steps...and waving.
It went downhill from there...
The husband was a tall, stocky ex-Marine type. The concert must've been his idea, because the wife's timid demeanor simply screamed the "wildest" thing she'd ever done in her 40-odd years was substitute 7-Up for the water in a church social Jell-O salad. Adding to the impression were the white "sensible" shoes and equally-practical short hair, newly permed but not styled. Inside the cabin, she glued herself to Hubby's back, clutching her snap-top purse tight to her bosom like a life-preserver, peeking over his shoulder with unblinking eyes the size of saucers. He was all for sharing the room, but if her trembling was a sign, she wasn't keen on the idea of sleeping two feet from total strangers and possibly being dismembered (or worse!) during the night.
So back they went into their Jeep 4X4, which most likely became their "room" that night, parked in "our" spot at the Janco Motel & Tanning Salon. Janice, bless her heart, meant well, but as soon as the "desperate couple" was out of sight, my friend and I laughed so hard we cried!
Set List From The 1994 Face To Face Tour
- Yankee Doodle Dandy
- Your Song
- Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me
- Philadelphia Freedom
- Take me to the Pilot
- Rocket Man
- Simple Life
- The One
- New York State of Mind
- Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding
- I Guess that's Why They Call it the Blues
- Can You Feel the Love Tonight
- Saturday Night's Alright (for Fightin')
- Pinball Wizard
- Rhapsody in Blue
- I Go To Extremes
- [With a Little Help from My Friends - Ames only]
- Prelude/Angry Young Man
- Listen to the Music
- Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
- Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
- My Life
- The River of Dreams
- We Didn't Start the Fire
- It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
- Only the Good Die Young
- Big Shot
- The Bitch is Back
- You May Be Right
- Bennie and the Jets
- A Hard Day's Night/Lucille/Great Balls Of Fire
- Candle in the Wind
- Do Re Mi-> Edelweiss
- Piano Man
The concert was the only "normal" event of the weekend.
Inside a theater or outside in a stadium, the routine prior to a concert is the pretty much the same.
Don't remember exactly where we parked, only that it wasn't in one of the muddy fields one newspaper reported.
We already had tickets from Ticketmaster and would avoid the lines at the ticket booth, but the requisite bag check at the gate took forever.
As the ticket stub shows, our seats technically weren't in the nose-bleed section, but might as well have been since we were about as far from the stage as one could get and still be in the stadium.
Due to the wind, the on-stage video screens had been taken down, which necessitated renting binoculars to see anything on stage.
The concert itself was fantastic! Everything you'd expect from two legends.
It happened to be the same weekend as Woodstock'94 - what a joke! - so we were treated to an extra song: Billy Joel's dead-on rendition of Joe Cocker's "With a Little Help from My Friends" from Woodstock'69. So dead-on that anyone outside the stadium would've sworn JC made a surprise appearance.
Elton did "Candle In The Wind", but to this day I don't remember hearing it until Diana's funeral.
We sang along to the songs. We lit our Bics. A good time was had by all.
Sunday morning, after a great night's sleep not in a car parked outside a tanning salon, we headed back down Highway 169. Between Boone and I-80, we stopped for lunch in a cornfield. Well, not in a cornfield, but at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere surrounded by tall corn. After turning west on I-80, the next stop was Mt Etna and the graves of my gr-gr-grandparents...and hopefully meet Merrill Sparks, who'd turn out to be the final surprise of this weird and wild weekend.
We easily found Merrill's house, but after several unanswered knocks, we were turning to leave when the door was opened by a man who looked 60, not his true age of 70-something. Turned out he'd been sunning au natural on the deck in back of the house, same as he was doing Friday afternoon when the librarian called. He was quite open - to us at least - about being a practicing nudist, which made it difficult for me to take him seriously as a historian.
After seeing the Brethren church where one of Fred and Susan's sons had served as pastor, and the spot on the Nodaway River where another had built a grist mill, the tour of Mt Etna ended at F&S's tombstone in the cemetery on a hill...the "Mount" in Mt. Etna...south of town.
Then we headed home, and somewhere between Mt Etna and Corning, we stepped back through the looking glass into the real world.
More information about the places we visited:
- Welcome to Conception Abbey
Conception Abbey is a Benedictine Monastery in Northwest Missouri established in 1873 by monks from Engelberg Switzerland.
- Mo. monastery offers sanctuary, silence - USATODAY.com
Remember quiet? It's that sound of not much at all, a fall breeze over a still pond, a car on a gravel road, frogs.
- Madison County, Iowa - Home of the Bridges of Madison County and Birthplace of John Wayne
Madison County, Iowa is famous for its covered bridges (popularized by Robert James Waller's novel 'The Bridges of Madison County' as well as the Hollywood movie of the same name) and as the birthplace of John Wayne. But it contains other treasures.
- People's Daily Online
People's Daily (China) newspaper article about the annual Madison County Covered Bridges Festival, held each October.